Stalag XVII B

Treatment of Prisoners

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Camp Kommandant and an American prisoner representative



Prisoners were separated by nationality or ethnic group, placed in separate parts of the camp, and were intentionally kept from mingling or communicating with any of the other groups. In addition to the way different prisoner groups were treated, there were also tensions among the various nationalities and ethnic groups of prisoners themselves. For instance, the Poles hated the Russians, and the various ethnic groups among the Jugoslavian prisoners (Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Slovenians, etc.) all hated each other. The Germans used and exploited these tensions to keep the prisoners from uniting.

The Germans did not treat all prisoners the same; some nationalities or ethnicities were treated better or worse than the others. Although all prisoners were generally underfed and badly mistreated in Stalag XVII B, the ones who were generally treated best (least badly) were the Americans and the British. They were exempt from physical labor and could receive packages from families at home and Red Cross packages containing food, cigarettes and personal hygiene items. Ranking under the Americans and British were the Flemish Belgians (who spoke Dutch), the Wallon Belgians (who spoke French) and the French. The Poles and Jugoslavian ethnic groups were treated worse, and the Italians (after Italy surrendered to the Allies and turned against the Germans) were treated much worse. However, the prisoners treated worst of all were the Soviet soldiers. The Germans had a very low regard for the Russians to begin with, and since the Soviet Union didn't sign the Geneva Conventions, the Germans felt free to do anything they wanted to with them.

According to the Geneva Conventions of 1929, prisoners from countries that signed the agreement could not be forced to work. Although the Germans signed the Conventions, they got around this restriction by declaring that all prisoners belonging to German-occupied countries became "voluntary workers" and they forced most of their European prisoners to work either inside or outside the camp in Arbeitskommandos (work details).

Punishment of prisoners was also based on the German's "ranking" of nationalities. American prisoners who did not follow German orders and regulations, or tried to escape, were usually sentenced to as much as a month in a special solitary confinement building the Americans nicknamed "The Boob" (probably derived from the slang term "booby hatch"). Prisoners sent to "The Boob" were given only small amounts of bread and water. Other prisoners who disobeyed rules were given worse punishments. Soviet prisoners who misbehaved or tried to escape, however, were treated extremely harshly. According to a German Army order called "Aktion K[ugel] (Operation Bullet)", many Russian prisoners were simply shot and many others were sent to the nearby Mauthausen Concentration (Extermination) Camp and forced to work until they died. Soviet prisoners who died from disease, starvation, or were shot, were either left where they died or thrown into unmarked mass graves. There was a mass grave for Russian soldiers in the square-shaped forested area just northeast of the Stalag XVII B.



My father took these off the barracks wall the day the forced evacuation of the camp began. He carried them folded up in his diary.

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